There are insufficient data on the effects of long-term intensive exercise in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). We undertook this randomized, controlled, multicenter trial to compare the effectiveness and safety of a 2-year intensive exercise program (Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients In Training [RAPIT]) with those of physical therapy (termed usual care [UC]).
Three hundred nine RA patients were assigned to either the RAPIT program or UC. The primary end points were functional ability (assessed by the McMaster Toronto Arthritis [MACTAR] Patient Preference Disability Questionnaire and the Health Assessment Questionnaire [HAQ]) and the effects on radiographic progression in large joints. Secondary end points concerned emotional status and disease activity.
After 2 years, participants in the RAPIT program showed greater improvement in functional ability than participants in UC. The mean difference in change of the MACTAR Questionnaire score was 2.6 (95% confidence interval [95% CI] 0.1, 5.2) over the first year and 3.1 (95% CI 0.7, 5.5) over the second year. After 2 years, the mean difference in change of the HAQ score was −0.09 (95% CI −0.18, −0.01). The median radiographic damage of the large joints did not increase in either group. In both groups, participants with considerable baseline damage showed slightly more progression in damage, and this was more obvious in the RAPIT group. The RAPIT program proved to be effective in improving emotional status. No detrimental effects on disease activity were found.
A long-term high-intensity exercise program is more effective than UC in improving functional ability of RA patients. Intensive exercise does not increase radiographic damage of the large joints, except possibly in patients with considerable baseline damage of the large joints.